Tara Oceans studies plankton at planetary scale
The ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth, and yet we know very little about it. This is particularly true for the plankton that inhabit the ocean. Although these organisms are at least as important for the Earth system as the rainforests and form the base of marine food webs, most plankton are invisible to the naked eye and thus are largely uncharacterized. To study this invisible world, the multinational TaraOceans consortium, with use of the 110-foot research schooner Tara, sampled microscopic plankton at 210 sites and depths up to 2000 m in all the major oceanic regions during expeditions from 2009 through 2013 (1).
Success depended on collaboration between scientists and the TaraExpeditions logistics team. The journey involved not only science but also outreach and education as well as negotiation through the shoals of legal and political regulations, funding uncertainties, threats from pirates, and unpredictable weather (2). At various times, journalists, artists, and teachers were also on board. Visitors included Ban Ki-moon (Secretary-General of the United Nations) and numerous youngsters, including schoolchildren from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
Sampling, usually 60 hours per site, followed standardized protocols (3) to capture the morphological and genetic diversity of the entire plankton community from viruses to small zooplankton, covering a size range from 0.02 µm to a few millimeters, in context with physical and chemical information. Besides the sampling, a lab on board contained a range of online instruments and microscopes to monitor the content of the samples as they were being collected. The main focus was on the organism-rich sunlit upper layer of the ocean (down to 200 m), but the twilight zone below was also sampled. Guided by satellite and in situ data, scientists sampled features such as mesoscale eddies, upwellings, acidic waters, and anaerobic zones, frequently in the open ocean. In addition to being used for genomics and oceanography, many samples were collected for other analyses, such as high-throughput microscopy imaging and flow cytometry. The samples and data collected on board were archived in a highly structured way to enable extensive data processing and integration on land (4). The five Research Articles in this issue of Science describe the samples, data, and analysis from Tara Oceans (based on a data freeze from 579 samples at 75 stations as of November 2013).
De Vargas et al. used ribosomal RNA gene sequences to profile eukaryotic diversity in the photic zone. This taxonomic census shows that most biodiversity belongs to poorly known lineages of uncultured heterotrophic single-celled protists. Sunagawa et al. used metagenomics to study viruses, prokaryotes, and picoeukaryotes. They established a catalog with >40 million genes and identified temperature as the driver of photic microbial community composition. Brum et al., by sequencing and electron microscopy, found that viruses are diverse on a regional basis but less so on a global basis. The viral communities are passively transported by oceanic currents and structured by local environments. Lima-Mendez et al. modeled interactions between viruses, prokaryotes, and eukaryotes. Regional and global parameters refine resulting networks. Villar et al. studied the dispersal of plankton as oceanic currents swirl around the southern tip of Africa, where the Agulhas rings are generated. Vertical mixing in the rings drives nitrogen cycling and selects for specific organisms.
Tara Oceans combined ecology, systems biology, and oceanography to study plankton in their environmental context. The project has generated resources such as an ocean microbial reference gene catalog; a census of plankton diversity covering viruses, prokaryotes, and eukaryotes; and methodologies to explore interactions between them and their integration with environmental conditions. Although many more such analyses will follow, life in the ocean is already a little less murky than it was before.
Source: Science 22 May 2015: Vol. 348 no. 6237 p. 873 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac5605